Windows of opportunity in baseball often come in small sizes. After coming within a run of the National League pennant last season, the Mets hope their chance hasn't run out yet. Make no mistake, the Mets remain a force to be reckoned with and could end up finishing with a better result than they did last season. But they shouldn't expect the regular-season cakewalk they had last season, and they can't hope to be the prohibitive favorites to win the pennant. This year's edition is a talented but flawed team.

First, look at the talent. Their lineup is stacked, even if Manager Willie Randolph elects to bat Paul Lo Duca -- and not David Wright -- second. Jose Reyes enjoyed a breakout season last year, and, if he learns to walk a little more, could become an MVP candidate. Carlos Delgado still provides plenty of offense at first. The Mets can wait another season or two before worrying about his becoming a liability with his expensive contract. The other half of Brothers Carlos, Beltran, is still in his prime, and can expect to perform close to the level he produced last year.

Those players can be counted on, but some others cannot. The Mets will trot out plenty of old players to go with their young ones. Moises Alou, signed to a one-year contract to play left field, is no spring chicken. He'll be 41 in July. Shawn Green, who will play opposite Alou in right field, ceased to be a productive Major League outfielder seasons ago. Pressure will be on Randolph to play the younger -- and more brash -- Lastings Milledge, but until that happens, the Mets will lose runs from that position.

Scoring runs won't be a problem for the Mets, but preventing them will. They've already lost Pedro Martinez through July, and Tom Glavine and Orlando Herandez, the top two starters, are both old and no stranger to injuries. Glavine is 40, and although Hernandez says he's only 37, who knows if that's true? Behind those two are bigger question marks. Fans can be optimistic about John Maine and Mike Pelfrey and even Oliver Perez, but they can't be that sure those three will provide anything more than average pitching. In the case of Perez, whose reputation has been made off one great season with the Pirates in 2004, they could end up being happy if he turns up mediocre.

Balance the broken and the working parts and you have a team that should be in the mix for the division title. Philadelphia, with its capable offense and pitching staff, probably poses the biggest threat, but the Phillies always seem to underachieve. Atlanta's run finally ended last year, and they aren't in great shakes. Washington could be the worst team in baseball, and Florida probably won't repeat last year's surprise. The Mets are right there, but don't expect them to celebrate early in September like they did last year. The Mets will and should take nothing for granted.

Photo of Mr. Met and his minions at the Build-A-Bear Workshop by Neil Epstein